Parents want to be able to help their kids calm down when conflict happens. So it can be quite discouraging when conflicts spiral out of control. If screaming matches are normal at your house, or even if they are infrequent but still troublesome, here are three developmental stages to consider. Whether you have a toddler or a teen, we’ll offer practical tips to help you teach your kids to calm down so they can solve problems well.
Recently we received this story from Joel and Amy Nelson, parents of two sons, who have previously shared their story here. Enjoy!
Parenting may not come with a manual, but I sure have read a lot of the parenting books out there! One common message that I encountered in my reading was, in all that you do, “be consistent”.
This logic was all well and good, except when I was not in a good place to address the situation calmly because of what was going on inside of me – exasperation, frustration, or just plain being tired and worn out from a day. If one of my sons challenged me during these times, it was “game on”.
It typically would start with me giving a consequence just because I was mad. “If you do that one more time, you will lose (insert favorite item here) for one day.” Then, if there was any whining, it was, “OK, that’s two days!” Then after the pouty huffing, “OK, one week, do you want more?” Then after the slammed door, “OK, A MONTH!!!” And then, there I was — stuck in the consequences I had given, having to “be consistent” and follow through.
Everyone would agree that loving our children is one of the most important things a parent can do.
But sometimes expressing that love isn’t as easy as it sounds. Sarafina wrote about a breakthrough she had in learning to connect with an extremely angry child:
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Parents sometimes feel like hostages to the intense demands of their children, intimidated into submission with the threat of “the big gun” – a deafening meltdown. One of our online course participants asked for help:
Our 3 1/2 year old son often wants a specific plate or cup. So if we set him up with one that he doesn’t like, he can be very vocal about it. Sometimes our initial reaction is something like “It doesn’t matter if you have the blue cup or the orange cup. Why can’t you be flexible & move on?!?! Get over it!” But perhaps he wants to exercise his choice & preference.
“I call the window seat!”
“Nu-uhhh, it’s MY turn!”
“OW! Mom, she hit me!”
Sometimes it can seem like the simplest interactions are the ones that explode out of nowhere. Getting out the door to school, getting in the car to go somewhere, getting ready for bed — when it comes to transition time, you can just feel your blood pressure begin to rise.
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I’ve heard a lot of encouraging stories from parents during coaching sessions, but even I was shocked at this one.
In our coaching session Krista and Ted were frustrated that they had let their tired daughter, Carlie, go back up the ski hill just one more time at the end of the day.
“We should have known better. The low point of our whole vacation was her huge meltdown on that last icy slope. She kept screaming, ‘I can’t get down!’ Everyone was staring at us!” Krista tried to calm Carlie down (with a fair degree of embarrassment) while Ted followed their younger, more confident daughter down the hill.
“So how did Carlie get down?” I asked as they shook their heads at the memory.
Simply stated, kids have tantrums because they pay off. In some convoluted sort of way they get what they want. Even if it means they lose their cool and wear themselves out. The challenge for a parent is determining what exactly a child might need in the midst of an all-out emotional outburst. What they want may not be what it appears at face value to be. For example, even if the flailing tantrum at the store does not get them the object of the tantrum, the child is still likely meeting a need for intense attention, for power, and for control. So if a child is lacking good attention, or feels out of control, a tantrum might be just the thing the child needs in order to get some attention or feel in control.
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Fists clench. Ears turn red. Lips quiver. The tiny chest heaves to draw in a breath and then — “NOOOOOOOO!!”
When your child starts working up to a tantrum, those tell-tale warning signs can make an explosion seem expected, or even inevitable. But while a meltdown might seem predictable, it doesn’t have to be inevitable.
Does your child sometimes unexpectedly meltdown at the drop of a hat? Does unexpected change or inflexibility lead to frequent tantrums? If so, you’re not alone! As a parent helping kids sort out their frustrations can be a challenge, especially when they have a tantrum that ramps up quickly. Practical tools that help a child understand how their behavior affects others can be simple, like the following example from Jen and her son Jonah.
Despite Jen’s best efforts, her goal of trying to stop her son’s meltdowns just seemed to make them worse. After realizing that she needed to be more proactive instead of waiting for those inevitable outbursts, Jen worked with Lynne during a parent coaching session on a new plan. Here is her story: